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Steiner grants Black waiver she needs to become chancellor

As expected, State Education Commissioner David Steiner has granted publishing executive Cathleen Black the waiver she needs to become the city’s next schools chancellor.

Steiner’s decision follows a deal struck between city and state officials, the details of which emerged late last week. The agreement called for Black to promote Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky to a new position of Chief Academic Officer and was designed to ameliorate Steiner’s concerns about Black’s lack of experience in the education field.

Under state law, the commissioner is allow to waive the requirements for education experience and certification if the chancellor candidate’s experience is “substantially equivalent.”

In his letter today, Steiner cites the waiver that his predecessor, Richard Mills, gave former Chancellor Harold Levy 2000. In that case, Mills wrote that the chancellor’s experience did not need to mirror the required credentials, but rather that the candidate’s experience has prepared her for the chancellor’s job.

“After careful review of the record before me it is my judgment that, when viewed in its entirety, Ms. Black’s training, background and experience are substantially equivalent to the certification requirements set forth in law,” Steiner writes.

Steiner’s decision may be the final step in what has been a bruising appointment process for Black.

Her next challenge will be to win the confidence of parents and teachers who worry that her lack of education credentials will hinder her performance. Last week, a poll reported that 62 percent of parents with children in city public schools disapprove of the chancellor appointee.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised Steiner’s decision and pointed towards the preparation that Black will need before she assumes the chancellor position in January. When Bloomberg announced her appointment, Black asked for patience as she got “up to speed” on the school system.

“Over the next weeks and months, [Black] will be meeting with parents, teachers, elected officials and community leaders to listen and hear from them,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “She knows, as I do, that nothing is more important than providing a world class education for our kids.”

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Black’s appointment, said that he intends to sue to block the appointment.

“Our schools deserve a qualified chancellor, not someone who requires a private tutor on the public payroll to make up for her deficient resume,” Jeffries said in a statement. “Commissioner Steiner has violated the law and we are prepared to challenge this ill-advised decision in court.”

The assemblyman is among several opponents to Black’s appointment who have been preparing to sue if the appointment goes through.

Teachers union president Michael Mulgrew said that he hoped Black and Suransky would change course from some of the policies introduced by outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein.

“For the last eight years the system has been obsessed with a test preparation regimen that has narrowed the curriculum and led to the decline of many subjects and programs in our schools,” Mulgrew said. “Now that Ms. Black and Mr. Polakow-Suransky have been approved by State Education Commissioner Steiner, I hope we can move forward on the many challenges the system faces, including creating a curriculum that will give students a well-rounded education, new and better interventions for struggling students, and  early action to turn around failing schools.”

But it seems unlikely that Black will diverge significantly from the policies of her predecessor. In a statement today, Black said that she intends to follow Klein’s path of reforms.

“It’s vitally important that we continue building on the progress that Joel Klein and the Mayor have made over the last 8 years, and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get going,” she said.

Black’s appointment was thrown into uncertainty last week when the panel of education experts Steiner convened to advise on the waiver request recommended that he deny it. Half of the members of the panel voted to deny it unconditionally. Two members supported Black’s appointment, and the remaining two voted to wait and reconsider the request under different circumstances.

After last week’s deal to promote Suransky to act as educational expert alongside Black, Steiner took the new proposal back to his panel members, he writes.

“Those that were previously supportive, in whole or in part, viewed the new submission positively,” Steiner writes, suggesting that the four panel members who opposed Black’s appointment remain troubled by the compromise deal.